Sharper: Benedict's Tools for Good Works
“Tools of the spiritual craft.” ~RB 4
How do you know when you need to return to your foundations?
Last autumn, my Dad was at my shop, and we worked together for several weeks building a couple of saddles. For us, that means cutting, shaping, and decorating thick pieces of cowhide that are eventually attached to a wooden frame called a “tree.” The process is wide-ranging, encompassing delicate aesthetic considerations and moments where sweat drips off the end of my nose as I stretch and form the thick leather. These hides aren’t like leather jackets or upholstery—they’re more like springy boards when they’re dry and callouses on your feet when they’re wet. They’re thick, too—the sort of hides we use for saddles are about 3/8 of an inch thick in most places (or something like a thin slice of bread, if that helps).
One lesson from that time was that my tools needed to be sharper. You can make a pretty good cut with a knife that is pretty sharp, but you have to use a lot of force and the results are sort of good enough at best. Dad was fighting some injuries that had diminished his hand strength, and the heavy cutting fell to me. When you try to cut through a 3/8-inch-thick piece of leather, you find out the difference between pretty sharp and really sharp.
We had been sharpening tools the quick-and-dirty way for years because we could make it work well enough. However, some stark realities were forcing us to reconsider things. My Dad was hovering right at the edge of his physical capacity; he couldn’t force through cuts anymore. If I wanted him to work with me I was going to have to sharpen the tools so that he could function. On another level, he was also showing me my own future—giving me a glimpse of the physical challenges that I would have to face myself someday.
“Good Enough” No Longer Good Enough
In hindsight, the old way that we had done things—the way that I had learned from my Dad and was still using up until last year—was the product of a checkered history. He had tried a lot of sharpening methods, and by the time I was working with him in my 20’s, he had already been limping his sharpening process along for years. “Good enough” had been good enough because he had always been able to compensate for pretty sharp knives with physical strength.
Last fall we found ourselves on the non-working side of that method, and it was time to fix things because it wasn’t good enough anymore. I tackled the project, and I had to sift through a lot of possibilities and learn some things, and it all ended up taking a really long time. I had to go down a few rabbit holes and dig a few myself to find my ideas and equipment—all the way from repurposed motors and film capacitors to faceplates and timing belt pulleys.
But the knives are sharper for it.
A Lifetime to Hone
When Benedict talks of the “tools of good works,” he is describing the kinds of things that take a lifetime to hone, like insightful mercy, skillful compassion, and effective intervention (as well as many other things involved in caring for others and the world). At first, simply showing mercy, feeling compassion, and attempting to intervene is an accomplishment because it’s countercultural. Endeavoring in good works is good for all of us in profound ways. A difficult reality, though, is that good intentions don’t always translate into good effects. Many times we learn and then we have to re-learn. We go forward as far as we can until we must learn a new way.
Learning a New Way
And how will you know when you have to learn a new way? The work will tell you. My shop work was telling me I needed to find a better way. The sweat was dripping off the end of my nose and my Dad couldn’t help things much. When it comes to “the tools for good works,” though, the message comes along a different path. We have to look beyond intentions to results: Did my attempts at good works actually work for good? It’s a question that must be applied very gently, though, because squelching the impulse towards good works is destructive.
St. Benedict can seem a little severe when he lists the “tools for good works,” like a crabby coach with second-string players. Notice, though, that Benedict roots his discussion of good works in the love of God—and implicitly the experience of being loved by God. It can be confusing and humbling to notice that the good work of your life—what flows out of your best intentions—isn’t quite what it could be. We shouldn’t stop trying to do good works; we can be hopeful and courageous in God’s love. However, trying to fix things by simply trying harder isn’t going to work forever. It’s like trying to work with knives that aren’t quite sharp enough—eventually you won’t be strong enough. Even the realization that things need to improve is progress though, and I sense a place for gratitude as I wipe the sweat from my face in my shop work: I can get my tools sharper. The Benedictine way has long looked to role of formative practice (things like prayer, study, and worship) as well as the role of community (things like dialogue and discernment) in growing people towards good ends from good intentions. You aren’t alone in seeking to do good works and you have people around you helping you grow. Be encouraged to step into that growth.
Your spiritual life—and your good works—will be better for it.
Learn more about Benedictine spirituality.